Tami Mauriello: A heart of gold

By Robert Mladinich on January 15, 2019
Tami Mauriello: A heart of gold
“Everyone loved him. When he fought Joe Louis—the screaming—it was just unbelievable.”

Mauriello’s friendship with Graziano was so deep, the former middleweight champion didn’t forget his friend even when gripped by his own case of dementia…

Any old-time boxing fan who saw the movie “On the Waterfront” would easily recognize former heavyweight title challengers Tami Mauriello, Abe Simon, and “Two Ton” Tony Galento. All had fought Joe Louis and each played union goons in the classic 1954 film.

Mauriello, who hailed from the Bronx, played Tillio. Galento’s name was Truck, and Simon’s character was Barney.  he

Mauriello, who compiled an enviable record of 82-13-1 (60 KOs) between 1939 and 1949, was a New York darling and one of Frank Sinatra’s favorite fighters.

He unsuccessfully challenged Gus Lesnevich for a version of the light heavyweight title when he was just 17 years old, and he even staggered Louis in the first round before more than 38,000 fans at Yankee Stadium before the Brown Bomber turned the tables and stopped him in the very same round in 1946.

Mauriello fought Lesnevich four times, and also squared off against such notables as Jimmy Bivins and Lou Nova, each of whom he fought twice, Steve Belloise, and Cesar Brion.

When he passed away on December 3, 1999, there was barely a mention in any of the local newspapers. However, on the day after the sixth anniversary of his death, an In Memoriam notice, replete with a photo of him in fighting pose, appeared in the New York Daily News. It had obviously been paid for by his family.

It read (verbatim):
Mauriello, Tami (Stephen) 5/24/23-12/3/99. Miss you, Tami. So young, you were aged 13 Stephen when you started to fight professionally, then they had to call you Tami. You were pushed Dad, that was wrong, such a fragile age Stephen for mind and body, to be a pro gladiator. 1945 and again 1946, Tami, you were ranked number 1 heavy weight in the world, with Joe Louis Champion. September 18, 1946 you showed tremendous heart, courage, sensation, losing to Joe Louis for the championship of the world. I know Dad, any problems such as hangers on, compulsive gambling, anger problems, marital problems with beautiful Lucille, are due to the day Stephen became Tami. All is forgiven, Tami, also your sister, aunt Marie, loves you very much. Your son, Ronnie and Judy, grandchildren Carolyn and Rebecca, and great-grandchild Rachele.

A connection was soon made with Mauriello’s sister, Marie Internicola, who was one of two surviving siblings of Mauriello.

“My brother was a beautiful, beautiful man,” said Marie, a widow who still resided in the Bronx. “I took care of him when he divorced after 43 years of marriage. He came back to live in the Bronx.

“At first I thought he was just slowing down,” she continued. “I took him to a specialist who took care of the brain. He said he had pugilistica dementia. He said it wasn’t bad now, but it was gradually getting worse. The only thing he remembered was gambling. He loved horses and was always at the racetrack. Gambling ruined him.”

Before the dementia set in, Marie described her brother as being happy and go-lucky by nature.

“He was loved by everyone,” she said. “He had a magnificent heart. Anyone who had a problem would go to him. He was there for everyone. He never turned his back. He avoided big shots and loved little people, common people.”

One person who Mauriello impressed long after his boxing career ended was noted boxing historian and author Mike Silver. Back in the 1960s, the youthful and naïve Silver wandered into a Queens nightspot where Tito Puente was performing. Already a maniacal boxing fan, Silver was star-struck when he saw Mauriello working as a bouncer.

“I got so excited and kept saying, ‘I can’t believe you’re Tami Mauriello,’” said Silver. “He was very gracious, very cordial. Finally he said, ‘Kid, I don’t think you want to hang out here. This isn’t the place for you.’ I think he realized that I was out of my element in this place, if you know what I mean.”

Asked how Mauriello would have fared against today’s heavyweights, Silver was unequivocal in his response. “Was Tami a great fighter?” he pondered. “Of course not! But the fighter who nearly upended Joe Louis would have wreaked havoc among today’s alphabet belt soup title holders.”

Mauriello was never out of his element when he was in the ring. His father had died when he was very young, so he fell in with a neighborhood mentor named Lefty Rimini. Rimini realized what a gifted athlete Mauriello was and encouraged him to box. 

“Everything came so natural to him,” said Marie. “My mother didn’t like him boxing, but he did it anyway. Tami won a gold watch in his first tournament. He took the watch to my mother, who was in Fordham Hospital where she died of kidney trouble. After that Tami broke the watch into little pieces and threw it away.”

A few years later, Mauriello, whose birth name was Stephen, forever became known as Tami.

“He went to fight in the Golden Gloves in Cuba,” said Marie. “He was only 14 years old, but had to be 17 to compete. He took my brother Tami’s (Thomas) birth certificate so he could fight. After that, it was like we renamed him Tami. Nobody ever called him Stephen again.”

With both parents deceased, Marie put her life on hold to become a surrogate mother to her eight brothers and sisters. Although she wasn’t thrilled with Tami fighting, she couldn’t help but get caught up in the excitement he generated, especially when he squared off at Madison Square Garden or at the scores of now defunct Bronx venues that included the New York Coliseum, Starlight Park, and the Bronx Arena.

“Every fight was a big event,” she said. “Wherever he fought in New York, it was big. Celebrities loved him. Everyone loved my brother. When he fought Joe Louis—the screaming—it was just unbelievable.”

When Mauriello rocked Louis with his vaunted right hand, Marie thought she was in the midst of an earthquake. Marie still believed that the referee pushed her brother aside to give Louis more time to recuperate.

Although it was nothing but a hunch on her part, she thinks the referee might have had a bet on the champion.

“My brother wasn’t bitter,” she said. “After the fight he went to a restaurant he had called Tami’s Corner. He stayed late and broke down and cried.”

But, she adds, even if the referee was involved in any chicanery, she thinks he might have inadvertently did her brother a favor.

“The end result might have been the same, but my brother would have taken a worse beating,” she said. “He might have been hurt worse.”

Even after the high-profile loss, Mauriello’s popularity didn’t wane. Marie says that Sinatra was in her apartment on many occasions, and he was even expected to show at her wedding. While Sinatra didn’t make it, Jimmy Durante, Rocky Graziano, and several other celebrities from the sporting and entertainment communities did.

Mauriello’s friendship with Graziano was so deep, the former middleweight champion didn’t forget his friend even when gripped by his own case of dementia.

“Rocky was having his own problems, but three months before he died he took a chauffeured limo to the Bronx to see Tami,” recalled Marie. “He showed him the hat that Tami had given him many years before. Tami had that effect on people.”

If not for his gambling and the scores of residual problems associated with it, Mauriello might have had a wonderful life. He had a great wife and two beautiful children, and after he stopped fighting he worked for many years at Grumman, the Long Island-based defense contractor.

Although he made good money, every dime was spent on gambling.

“I pleaded with him to give up gambling,” said Marie. “We would fight all the time over it. I would ask him if he had his life to do over again would he avoid the gambling. He’d say he would do it again.”

In his final years, Mauriello had some questionable characters hanging around him. With his mind going quickly, he didn’t seem to realize their less than honorable intentions. Marie spoke to the mailman about not leaving her brother’s pension and Social Security checks in his box. She changed the locks on his apartment on more than one occasion.

When things worsened, Marie wanted to transform her dining room into a bedroom for her beloved brother. Her doctor warned her that because of his size, she would not be able to handle him.

“You’ll die before him trying to care for him,” he insisted.

With no alternatives, she made the heart-wrenching decision to place him in a nursing home. By then his mind was all but gone. Still, after much prodding she accepted an invitation to bring him to the Ring 8, Veteran Boxers Association’s annual Christmas party a few years before he died.

“Tami didn’t realize anything,” she recalled tearfully. “Everyone was hugging and kissing him, but he didn’t recognize anyone. I told everyone that I was glad they all saw him.”

When asked to speak by the Ring 8 president, Marie said the words flowed freely from her mouth and her heart.

“I warned all those fighters about what might happen to them,” she said. “I told them if you don’t put money away, you won’t have money in the end. I told them to look at my brother, and said that all came from boxing. I told them to take care of their families, take care of themselves, and put money away.”

For a man who gave so much, Marie said her brother got little in return. She knew he was his own worst enemy, but that didn’t make her love him any less.

“My brother was a tall, handsome man,” she said. “He was always dressed so well and always so nice to everyone. When I think of him, I don’t think of a fighter and I don’t think of a gambler. I think of a wonderful brother who would do anything for anyone. He had a heart of gold. I miss him so much.”

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  1. James Crue 08:45am, 01/16/2019

    Wonderful story. Thanks for writing it. Rocky is one of my favorite fighters. It’s good to know he was a loyal friend

  2. peter 07:03pm, 01/15/2019

    Another finely-drawn Mladinich article which delves into the boxer’s heart. I watch the accompanying video of this Louis-Mauriello championship bout and I see Tami moving around on unsteady pins. Certainly it’s because he’s getting clocked by Louis, but part of the instability we see in the clip is due to Mauriello having suffered polio at a young age. Great article, Bob—keep ‘em coming!

  3. Lucas McCain 06:05pm, 01/15/2019

    Exciting fight, but a very sad ending.  Especially haunting was the visit of Rocky Graziano to Tami—both so badly damaged by their ring careers.  So glad Klitschko is not coming back.

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